BRICS 2.0 – What’s in it for Africa?
The 15th BRICS Summit External link, opens in new window. took place from 22 to 24 August 2023 in Johannesburg. Monetary de-dollarisation and increased internal trade in local currencies, regional representation and geostrategic interests seemed to be among the factors motivating the decision to increase the number of member countries from the current five – Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa – to eleven by 2024. Three of the members will then be from Africa.
BY HENNING MELBER, Associate of The Nordic Africa Institute
The 26-page, 94-article BRICS Johannesburg II Declaration External link, opens in new window. sets the normative bar rather high. It declares a “commitment to the BRICS spirit of mutual respect and understanding, sovereign equality, solidarity, democracy, openness, inclusiveness, strengthened collaboration and consensus”, and “the promotion of peace” (art. 2).
It emphasises “upholding international law”, to “ensure the promotion and protection of democracy, human rights and fundamental freedoms for all” (art. 3). It expresses “concern about the use of unilateral coercive measures, which are incompatible with the principles of the Charter of the UN”, and reiterates commitment to a democratic and accountable international and multilateral system” (art. 4). The need for “promoting and protecting human rights and fundamental freedoms” and “respect of democracy and human rights” (art. 6) is repeatedly emphasised.
This seems a classically double-bind message: beyond challenging Western hegemony and its underlying hypocritical double standards, it could also be read as dismissing Russia’s – and other non-Western countries’ – open breach of norms and principles of international law and the UN Charter. Article 16 reiterates the principle “African solutions to African problems”. This makes one wonder if this extends beyond Western influence (if not control) over parts of the continent to other forms of direct intervention – not least by BRICS members.
With democracy and human rights as the most prominent normative values stressed, the decision “to invite” Argentina, Egypt, Ethiopia, Iran, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates “to become full members of BRICS from 1 January 2024” (art. 91) was unexpected.
While initially only Russia and China were in favour of expanding the membership, a last-minute compromise was negotiated by “conceding” Argentina to Brazil and Egypt and Ethiopia to South Africa. More importantly, Russia and China for the first time indicated willingness to barter over UN Security Council reform, which they had previously opposed.
The declaration supports “comprehensive reform of the UN”, increasing “the representation of developing (sic.) countries”, with Brazil, India and South Africa playing “a greater role in international affairs, in particular in the United Nations, including its Security Council” (art. 7).
As two scholars of the University of Johannesburg have warned External link, opens in new window.: “If an expanded BRICS is to be an agent for change on the world scene, it will need to be capable of action. Having rivals, or states that are at least ambivalent towards each other, seems anathema to that.”
Only one democracy out of the six
Expansion will not resolve animosities between China and India. Nor are the proposed new members free from conflicts with each other. Not least, Egypt and Ethiopia are at loggerheads External link, opens in new window. over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam on the Blue Nile.
While many wondered why Nigeria was not invited, the country’s representative at the summit clarified External link, opens in new window.: “So far, we have not applied for the membership”, mainly because President Bola Tinubu “is a true democrat” and “believes in consensus building."
This draws attention to the fact that, among the six invited new members, only Argentina is a democracy – elections are to be held there in October, and a new government might consider not to accept the invitation to join BRICS. Whatever the outcome, as of 2024, democracies will be a minority in BRICS.
This suggests that not only uplifting the global South in international relations and multilateral politics is on the agenda. At stake is also whether a club of mainly authoritarian regimes can exert stronger influence over the world order. As one German newspaper’s Africa editor observed External link, opens in new window., BRICS is not about a just world order. The global governance ambitions of Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping are not those of a multipolar world in which the same regulations – albeit ones that are far too often disrespected – apply to all.
In contrast, according to economist Branko Milanovic External link, opens in new window., BRICS is an anti-NATO response and a rebirth of the Group of 77 External link, opens in new window. - a formation of “developing countries” at the UN. For Milanovic, the desire for declared non-alignment has no common policy or ideological orientation but is an effort not to be drawn into a new Cold War. However, he offers no answer how this should be achieved when Russia is among the bedfellows, and with conflicts in the South China Sea and elsewhere.
Essayist Pankaj Mishra bluntly diagnosed the opposite External link, opens in new window.: “the assortment of princelings, autocrats, demagogues, and war criminals… have neither the prestige nor the foresight possessed by the delegates at Bandung”. For Mishra, “the ‘vision’ that BRICS countries, including its newest members, have in common, amounts to little more than a cynical expediency: to increase their bargaining power in the trade, technology and military deals that they will continue to vigorously pursue with the United States and Europe.”
That the current (dis-)order of the world is abused by hegemonic Western powers (albeit powers in decline) justifies efforts for a more balanced global governance. But it does not justify aborting the normative principles in place. Credit is given to this by BRICS if not in spirit, then at least in word, as the above quotes from the summit declaration document.
For African countries, a BRICS+ with three members from the continent does not resolve the balancing act between the competing big powers. As suggested by University of Pretoria’s Christopher Isike External link, opens in new window.: “The trick is for Africa to articulate its own interests and pursue them consistently.”
This remains a challenge. After all, as Obert Hodzi External link, opens in new window. from the University of Liverpool points out: “BRICS plays second fiddle to the individual interests and foreign policy objectives of its most powerful members.”
Russia as the unknown variable
While Russia’s influence in Africa has grown since its invasion of Ukraine, this influence is mainly based on the support of autocratic if not military regimes, through arms supplies and not least units of Wagner Group fighters. In contrast, Russian economic engagement is minute and has even declined. As concluded after the Russia-Africa Summit by Joseph Siegle of the Africa Center for Strategic Studies External link, opens in new window.: “Anaemic investment, normalising autocracy, fomenting instability and intervening in African domestic politics doesn’t sound like a winning strategy for building a long-term partnership.”
Russia has benefitted from anti-Western sentiments and Africa’s colonial history. Western double standards are easy prey for pseudo-anti-imperialism, distracting from similar behaviour not least by some of the BRICS members. But Putin’s address to the BRICS summit failed to garner support for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov seemed to be the proverbial fifth wheel – he was the only one of the five highest BRICS representatives not to speak at the presentation of the declaration.
Russia will host the 16th BRICS Summit in 2024 in the city of Kazan. How the internal dynamics of an enlarged BRICS and the war in Ukraine will unfold before then, and how they affect African countries remains to be seen.